Paleoanthropologist and Explorer
Photograph by Brent Stirton, National Geographic
Photograph courtesy Lee Berger
Birthplace: Shawnee Mission, Kansas
Current City: Johannesburg, South Africa
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I had always wanted to do something related to the outdoors. I grew up in an idyllic setting in rural Georgia, where I spent a great deal of time in the outdoors. As a teenager, I was involved with many activities related to conservation and the environment, including Scouting (becoming an Eagle Scout), 4-H (for which I became state president), Future Farmers of America, and other organizations such as these. I even went so far as to found the first gopher tortoise reserve in Georgia and was awarded the Youth Conservationist of the Year for this effort.
I spent a great deal of my youth searching plowed fields and riverbanks for Native American artifacts and fossils. It was in these activities that I first recognized I had a knack for "finding things." However, like many young people I felt pressured to seek a more "conventional" career path and first went to Vanderbilt University to pursue a career in law. It soon became apparent though, that this path was not for me (my grades and non-attendance reflected my disinterest!), but I fortunately was introduced to geology and paleontology through elective courses, and it was as if my eyes were opened—you could actually do exploration and discovery as a career!
I took some time off to find myself, working as a news photographer for a small-town television channel in Savannah, Georgia, where I had some great adventures, including becoming involved in the rescue of a drowning woman from the Savannah River. All of this happened before I was 21. It was at this time that I finally decided that I was going to pursue my dream of becoming a paleontologist and went back to university, attending first East Georgia College then Georgia Southern University. After reading the book Lucy by Don Johanson I became enamored with the idea of searching for humankind's ancestry and have never looked back!
How did you get started in your field of work?
My undergraduate work was in paleontology and anthropology. After receiving my degree, I was looking for a chance to do fieldwork before attending graduate school. My first introduction to fieldwork came through a lucky break—Don Johanson invited me to work at Olduvai Gorge as an assistant—but the field season was canceled at the last minute and I ended up attending the Harvard University Koobi Fora Field School. I found a hominid fossil on my first day in the field! I was hooked! I knew I wanted to be a field paleoanthropologist, someone whom actually finds these incredibly rare objects.
I had the good fortune of meeting Richard Leakey while in Kenya, and he gave me the advice to head to South Africa to pursue my graduate studies as there was, in his opinion, great potential to find new sites there. This was surprisingly the exact same advice Don Johanson had given me, and so I needed little convincing as I had, by that time, been bitten by the "African bug" for exploration. I was accepted to the graduate program at Wits University to study under the legendary paleoanthropologist Phillip Tobias, successor to Raymond Dart. I spent my first year scouring the dolomitic hills outside of Johannesburg for potential fossil sites. A year after arriving I had found my first new hominid locality, Gladysvale, which was the first new early hominid site to be discovered in southern Africa in 48 years—and the rest is history!
What inspires you to dedicate your life to paleontology?
The search for early humans is the search for OUR origins, and that in and of itself is inspiring. The fossils of our earliest ancestors are, in addition, probably the rarest sought after objects on Earth and thus the search for them is an addictive and seductive thing as every single piece you find is an invaluable contribution to our present understanding. But it's not just the adventure and rarity that inspires me, it's also the fact that I think that understanding humankind's origins, and the formative processes that make our species the way we are is truly important. Humans are perhaps the most influential species to ever evolve on this planet and we literally hold the future of this planet's environment in our hands. By understanding our past—where we come from, why we behave the way we do—we can better understand our place on this planet and perhaps become more sensitive to humankind's place in nature.
What's a normal day like for you?
I don't have normal days! One day I might be in an office, in front of a computer, answering questions about myself to a National Geographic staffer, or writing a scientific paper; the next I might be in the field finding fossils or new sites; the next in some country somewhere around the world delivering a lecture; and the next in a lab working on a solution to some new problem or mystery. I manage more than 80 scientists on just the Malapa project studying Australopithecus sediba and that in and of itself keeps me busy as well!
Do you have a hero?
All the great explorers are my heroes. I respect people who push the boundaries of discovery and exploration and who take risks—whether they are physical, mental, or societal—in pursuit of new knowledge. I am not a fan of exploration for exploration's sake but admire people who explore for purpose. So a lot of my heroes are National Geographic explorers like Bob Ballard, James Cameron, and Johan Reinhard. In paleoanthropology I admire people like Robert Broom, Louis and Mary Leakey, Don Johanson, and Richard Leakey, people who have gone out and discovered fossils and then shared that information with the world. Other people I find heroic are the early scientist explorers and naturalists: Charles Darwin, Richard Burton, and Robert Scott.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
Just being in the field is my favorite experience, but I have to admit, the moment of discovery of an early hominin is an incredible and memorable moment and I can remember each time as if it was yesterday. In particular, when my son Matthew picked up the first piece of Australopithecus sediba and said, "Dad, I found a fossil!"—it was a clavicle, the very bone I did my Ph.D. thesis on—I will never forget that moment!
I've had several close encounters with dangerous African wildlife, including crawling into leopards hiding in caves and being charged by elephants, lions, and buffalo, but every one of these encounters has simply made me enjoy the African bush and the privilege of exploring in remote and wild areas more.
What are your other passions?
My wife, Jackie, often tries to find vacation spots where I can't find fossils, as my work is my passion. She has failed every time, by the way, and has, I think, given up on this futile exercise! I also am a passionate diver, holding more than a dozen specialties and my Divemaster certification.
What do you do in your free time?
Free time? What's that?
If you could have people do one thing to help conserve our heritage, what would it be?
I have a dream that one day we will recognize the conservation of our heritage in the way that we recognize the importance of the conservation of endangered animals. Every fossil or archaeological site we destroy or lose to development or human activity is gone forever-and unlike biological species, heritage can't reproduce! So it is absolutely critical that we make every person aware of the heritage that surrounds them so that it can be documented and conserved for this and future generations.
Rising Star Excavation Blog
- What Can We Learn From Homo naledi’s Skull?
- Homo naledi’s Nike-Ready Foot
- Homo naledi’s Powerful Hand Up Close
- How the Naledi Team Solved a 1,550-Piece Puzzle
- Homo naledi: 1,500 Fossils Revolutionize Human Family Tree
- Wrapping Up Round Two
- Young Visitor Helps Recover First Top Jaw From the Site
- What’s New at This Week’s Excavation
- A Critical Piece of the Hominin Puzzle
- Scientists Return to Explore a Second Fossil Chamber
Lee Berger's Active Digs
The Rising Star Expedition was rapidly assembled during October 2013 to recover ancient hominin fossils discovered deep in a South African cave.
With the bones hidden a hundred feet underground and beyond obstacles that include a dangerous squeeze only seven inches wide, it was necessary to assemble a select team of capable researchers with the unlikely combination of excavation experience, caving skills, and the small frame required to reach the inner chamber. The few who met all these requirements happened to be women.
Now analysis of the 1,550 recovered fossils has led to the naming of a new species, Homo naledi, and scientists continue to work at dating the fossils and determining exactly how they ended up in that cave.
See photos, videos, and more >>
When Lee Berger set out to follow up on his hunch that there are many more hominin fossils yet to be discovered, he started by looking in the last place you'd expect: space.
Using satellite data from Google Earth, Berger located areas throughout South Africa with geological features similar to known hominin sites.
On the very first day of ground-truthing those points—and just a few hundred yards from where he'd been digging for 17 years—his nine-year-old son spotted a telltale bone sticking from a rock long ago blasted out of the ground by miners.
That bone led to others, and soon two of the most complete hominin skeletons ever found had been discovered. Using CT scanners to peer inside rocks brought back to the lab, Berger and his team discovered bones that told an entirely new chapter in the story of human evolution.
The new species of Australopithecus sediba showed a mix of primitive and derived traits that provided proof that our family tree has more branches than had previously been accepted.
See photos, illustrations, and more >>
In Their Words
The discoveries we're now making show that in some ways the age of exploration is still just beginning.
See the fossils that helped identify this startling species with a mix of human and ape features.
Hear an interview with Lee Berger on National Geographic Weekend
00:11:00 Lee Berger Audio
National Geographic grantee and paleoanthropologist Lee Berger has been searching for the fossils of human ancestors, but it was his 9-year-old son who stumbled upon the find of a lifetime: a partial skeleton that may very well change our understanding of the genus Homo.
Our Explorers in Action
Meet female explorers who have pushed the limits in adventure, science, and more.